Saturday, March 5, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau *****

If we were to make a list of the science fiction authors who have made the biggest contributions to science fiction cinema, American writer Philip K. Dick would have to be pretty high up the list. The writer, whose novels (of which 44 have been published) and short stories (of which he wrote approximately 121, most of which appeared in science fiction magazines during his lifetime) have often drawn from his own life experiences with drug abuse, paranoia and schizophrenia and have frequently dealt with a variety of sociological, political and metaphysical themes, didn’t receive all that much recognition for his literary work during his lifetime but, since his death of a stroke in 1982, interest in his stories has increased exponentially and Hollywood in particular has taken a keen eye to his work, films based on his stories including (in chronological order) Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Screamers (1995), Impostor (2001), Minority Report (2002), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Next (2007).

Admittedly, not all of these adaptations have been the most respectful of their original literary inspirations, particularly those based on Dick’s short stories which obviously have had to be fleshed out in order to make a full length feature, and several of not really considered to be particularly good films but some are widely regarded to be among the greatest science fiction movies of all time, namely Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, ‘Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Interest in Dick’s work hasn’t ended with these films either and now the latest film to finds its inspiration in the words of one his stories is hitting cinema screens – The Adjustment Bureau

Based on Dick’s short story Adjustment Team, the film isn’t the most faithful adaptation of one of Dick’s works, largely taking the central themes and constructing a new story around them, but the distinctive surrealistic style that Dick has become most famous for is very much present and, with Dick’s second daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, serving as an executive producer on the film, it seems that much respect has been made to the source material. And with considerable talent involved this film certainly has all the ingredients to make a great movie. While he may be coming off a string of box office flops, including The Informant!, Invictus, Green Zone and the dead boring Hereafter, and is in desperate need of a hit, Matt Damon is probably one of the best actors working in Hollywood today and all his recent films, while commercial failures, have certainly given him the opportunity to stretch his acting stills somewhat. 

Co-star Emily Blunt, on the other hand, while having appeared in some very bad films in the last year – namely The Wolfman and Gulliver’s Travels – is a definite rising talent who simply needs a role that she can really do something great with, which is exactly what she has been given here. As for the talent behind the camera, writer and director George Nolfi may only be making his directorial debut with this film but his writing credits, which include Timeline, Ocean’s Twelve, The Sentinel and The Bourne Ultimatum definitely suggest that he is a man who may be able to do justice to Dick’s story, even if only in the writing department. 

Some people may be somewhat concerned about the quality of the film following the postponement of its release from its original release date last September – Universal Pictures swapped release dates with the mediocre M. Night Shyamalan produced Devil which had originally been scheduled to open now – but the studio has been showing much confidence in the film and the trailer’s promise of a film that is intriguing and very different to the norm certainly appears to have been lived up to. After all, it’s not every day that you see an intelligent grown up science fiction romantic thriller is it...

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a charismatic and ambitious United States congressman who is running for the New York seat in the US Senate. His entire life is based around his political career and without it he just feels alone and isolated. Everything changes for him, however, when he encounters enchanting ballerina Elise (Emily Blunt) and instantly falls completely in love with her, the attraction reciprocated by her. This attraction, however, is all based on one encounter and it seems that this single liaison is all that they will ever have until they encounter each other again three years later and they pick up things where they left off. There’s just one problem – they were never supposed to meet again and a simple mistake has lead to a ripple effect that will change both their lives forever. 

Mysterious forces are determined to keep them apart and the agents of fate – otherwise known as the Adjustment Bureau – warn David to stay away from her. This, however, is something he cannot do. He and Elise encounter each again and again and their love blossoms, threatening David’s political career and her future as a ballet dancer in the process. They are willing to risk everything for their love though but the Bureau is not going to allow this and a chase begins. Pursued by Bureau agents Richardson (John Slattery) and Thompson (Terence Stamp), David and Elise go on the run, their only help coming from sympathetic Bureau agent Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie). But with the Bureau seemingly all powerful can they really escape their fate? Whatever the case, they definitely aren’t going to give up without a fight.

Anyone who has seen any of the previous films based on stories by Philip K. Dick will find that The Adjustment Bureau is very different to any of the Dick adaptations that have come before it. There is no future metropolis setting here, the film being set entirely in contemporary New York City; there are no alien beings or robotic life forms, the characters all being human, more or less; and the sci-fi content here is much more subtle, the film taking on a much more philosophical tone than the more heavily sci-fi and action orientated films that have been based on Philip K. Dick stories in the past. 

While fans of the TV show Fringe will notice certain parallels between the members of the Adjustment Bureau and that show’s Observers – both watch over the world, wear dark suits and hats, possess certain powers and generally seem to be not quite of this world – this film really is quite different to the norm. Very metaphysical with philosophical musings on life, love and fate, this is a film that doesn’t just set out to entertain but also to make us think and the themes explored are ones that are poised to inspire debate and really make you think after leaving the cinema. Very interesting in its exploration as to what fate really is and the way that one simple action can have a ripple effect that lasts for years afterwards, the film genuinely intrigues with its complexly structured narrative and the suggestion that the appearance of free will may actually be better free will itself – it is suggested that, on occasions when the Adjustment Bureau has allowed humanity to make its own choices free of their interference, the results have always been disastrous – is poignant and something that could create much discussion long after the film has finished. 

In the grand tradition of Philip K. Dick stories, the Adjustment Bureau is portrayed as an oppressive civil service like organisation – one that has an old fashioned looking New York office building as its headquarters – that claims to have humanity’s best interests at heart but nonetheless has a very sinister presence. “Are you angels?” asks David, to which Harry replies “We’re more like case officers” emphasising that the Adjustment Bureau is actually that, a bureaucracy, and also serving to highlight that, while its agents may have some unique powers, they are still on some level very human and capable of understanding, making them not quite adversaries although not quite allies of humanity either, being more a shade of grey – literally given the colour scheme of the film. 

We see that the members of the Adjustment Bureau are far from perfect at their job – everything that happens is a ripple effect resulting from Harry falling asleep at the wrong time – while also witnessing that their plans really are intended for the altogether betterment of humanity, leading up to a point when some day the human race may truly be ready for true free will.

From the moment the agents of the Adjustment Bureau enter the picture there is a distinct atmosphere of paranoia, something that is reflected in the often colourless and sometimes off kilter visuals as well as in Matt Damon’s performance, his character genuinely seeming like someone who is convinced he is being watched and followed – of course, he is. In the stead of action sequences we get good old fashioned paranoia and suspense and the film certainly has the feel of a 70s paranoia thriller at times with both the music and the visuals really serving this effect well. 

The original score by Thomas Newman perfectly enhances the atmosphere that is created by the visuals and emphasises the mood of every scene, romantic tones featuring in scenes that show the blossoming romance between David and Elise while more suspenseful tones take over as the paranoia takes hold. On the visual front, the sets and locations are perfectly chosen for the feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia that director George Nolfi is clearly going for, with foot chases taking the characters through narrow corridors, dull office buildings and grey warehouses, and the dull grey bureaucratic world of the Adjustment Bureau contrasting heavily with the bright vibrant colours seen elsewhere in the film. All this is captured perfectly by the cinematography, which is often beautiful, cinematographer John Toll delivering visuals that are packed full of detail and that perfectly capture the high contrast between the very different environments in which the film’s events take place. 

Some shots have a perfect symmetry to them and every shot is framed perfectly and boasts flawless composition, the film generally looking great. This is also true of the visual effects which are sparing but very effective, those seen in the notebooks utilised by the Adjustment Bureau to view the life plans of the characters being subtle but effectual and the only other instances of visual wizardry, which come in the form of the doors that the Adjustment Bureau can use to travel instantly between different locations, also being very well executed.

The film isn’t just a paranoia thriller of course but also a love story and in this department the film also delivers at a high standard. From the moment Matt Damon and Emily Blunt first meet on screen there is an immediate spark between them, the chemistry between them being truly electric, it really seeming like they have fallen in love at first sight and that they genuinely do belong together as soul mates. The romance is sweet and sometimes even funny and it is hard not to wish for an ending where they end up together, us being encouraged to root for them all the way. 

Truly romantic, true love hasn’t been depicted on screen this well for quite some time. Individually, Damon and Blunt also fare well in their performances. Damon is superbly charismatic in his role and it is very easy to see how he would make a great politician – who wouldn’t vote for him if he actually were one? Additionally, when paranoia starts to take hold of his character his performance expertly conveys all the body movements and jittery reactions that someone would really have in his situation, making the paranoia entirely believable. And it’s easy to see why his character falls so easily for Elise – Emily Blunt is stunningly beautiful, has an amazing smile and a vibrant fun loving personality that would win over even the most hard hearted of individuals. 

Not only that but she convinces as a ballet dancer, performing her ballet moves masterfully with the few dance sequences being excellently choreographed. As for other cast members, no one really stands out – this is Damon and Blunt’s show – but everyone delivers at a more than adequate standard, Terence Stamp having a rather sinister screen presence, Anthony Mackie coming across as much softer and more sympathetic and John Slattery coming across as a mix of the two, cold but not outright ominous. The strength of the performances is of course also a testament to the strength of the writing with Nolfi faring superbly as both director and writer, delivering an engaging and compelling storyline, strong dialogue and well developed characters as well as the occasional bit of humour to go with the suspenseful paranoia and heart-warming romance. 

Best viewed as a love story, albeit one with slightly chilling undertones, the film feels truly romantic and works superbly as a thriller as well. If I had to sum it up with just four words it would be these: Intriguing. Refreshing. Different. Brilliant. “If you believe in free will, if you believe in chance, if you believe in choice” show it by seeing The Adjustment Bureau. Who knows, it just might be your destiny and who are we to argue with fate?

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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